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Economics is about being a good plumber

November 6, 2011

Ester Duflo is a smart women.

She has a PhD from MIT where she has taught development economics since her graduation in 1999. She holds a chair in the Department of Economics there, edits an influential economics journal, has published too many articles to count, won major prizes and awards—including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship that is nicknamed the ‘genius’ award—and has authored or co-authored four books with the most recent released earlier this year called Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the way to Fight Global Poverty.

And to just what does this 38-year-old aspire? … She wants to be a good plumber!

Or that, at least, is how she phrased what good economics should be in her acceptance speech for yet another award received last week at the meetings of the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management.

Duflo is part of a network of economists who run randomized controlled trials in developing countries to uncover the most effective ways of delivering programs in aid of the poor: everything from immunization, to bed nets, to education, to microfinance. Her methods are the same in principle as those used by drug companies testing the effectiveness of a new treatment by comparing the incidence of the disease between two groups of similar individuals, one group being administered the drug and the other a placebo.

Duflo is constantly tinkering and adjusting the design of her experiments, looking at different treatments, outcomes, and situations be they in rural India, Morocco, Kenya or elsewhere.

This is the plumbing. Small interventions, designed to address specific problems, conducted in a way that builds up information on what works, what doesn’t, and what should be the next step.

Dulfo doesn’t have much regard for grand goals to eliminate poverty all at once by some arbitrary date. Or answering big questions like: is foreign aid a good thing or a bad thing? But check out this talk to learn how to save lives by appropriately delivering bednets, or how to increase years of schooling by deworming children.

In doing economics as plumbing she is in good company. John Maynard Keynes, the great University of Cambridge economist and author of  The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money—the book published in 1936 that gave public policy makers the tools to manage the macro-economy—once stated that he looked forward to the day when economists could be thought of as nothing more than dentists.

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